The Following – “Pilot”
In this entry, I examine Fox’s newest contender for hybrid traditionalist/progressivist TV drama. Infusing elements of serial killer mayhem (Network TV bread and butter) with serialized storytelling, Fox blends network tropes with cable drama richness. Yet perhaps a closer examination of the show’s floating signifiers demonstrates deeper sociological tensions between conservative ideologies and academic intelligentsia. Thus, I sort of offer my own form of hybrity combining a long-form recap of the pilot along with several opportune commentaries regarding the show’s undergirding meta-themes.
Kevin Bacon plays an alcoholic writer and FBI consultant Ryan Hardy. He is an accomplished writer whose work on serial killer Joe Carroll brought him both acclaim and tragedy. Perhaps a former investigator, he is forcibly retired due to injuries sustained in a close-bout with Carroll. A stab wound in the heart leaves Hardy permanently weakened, with a pace-maker homage to Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Tell Tale Heart” nonetheless.
A serial killer escapes prison. While the audience doesn’t witness the killings, graphic depictions of a room full of slaughtered guards progresses the content beyond typical network fare.
Police reports and news briefs on fictitious/realistic TV networks fill in the details, as does a police briefing. The serial killer is a former Professor of Literature at a distinguished University. His history as a serial killer includes the mutilation of 16 college students as a kind of performance art mutilation and mutual admiration to the “Romantic Era” horror writers like Poe, Mary Shelley, and others (Creator-writer Williamson clearly sticks to his literary strengths and successful scholastic settings in Dawson’s Creek and the Scream movies. Whether his interpretations unearth original or hypertrophic schlock depends on the viewer.)
In the police station, a women receives a text and then moves to the center of a room. She de-robes and reveals a naked body beneath with writing covering her body. She disrobes and then stabs herself in the eye with an ice pick. Her body gesticulates in trauma before she dies. The writing comprises Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”.
The academic background for the serial killer Joe Carroll posits an arousing choice to say the least. In addition to recalling some theories that Jack the Ripper was a man of means, perhaps even a surgeon of bourgeois background, The Following also presents aptly educated men as dangerous. This morality play template represents two immediate lessons for the viewer: that of hubris and caution. On one hand, knowledge in the wrong hands or perhaps power unchecked leads to deadly consequences at its most irrational conclusion. On the other hand, this posits men or knowledge as societal threats to the status quo. The very enactment of their ‘superior fortitude’ puts them at odds with the harmony and sanctity of everyday life. In mythic fashion, human life thus means less and less to them and furthermore becomes a chess game combining hubristic experimentation and self-satisfaction. In short, the evil genius myth manifests itself in the modern academic.
When the investigators track his Internet activity through his library access, they find the guard that most regularly shauferred him called in sick the night of his escape. At the guard’s house, a refrigerator covered in “missing dog” fliers foreshadows the grisly evidence in the garage. The investigators gag and contort their faces as they move through the shadowy gore of bloodied tools and heaping black trash bags. A German shepherd is identified on a makeshift surgical table before the dog, gashed and bleeding out, calls out a final whimper, as if to plea that they end its life.
Like the woman who forced an ice pick through her eye and the guard that facilitated escape, the killer demonstrates a charisma to inspire and thus control those that listen to his words. Thus, Carroll’s apparent skills as linguist posit a kind of political persuasion that runs contra to conservative views on life and death. His poetic power slices division between the sacred and the profane with precision and calculation. The commentary is both classical and modern.
Even the “rookie”-type investigator, a young unshaven fan of Bacon’s protagonist antihero, Ryan Hardy, reinforces the shock value of the garage scene doggie dungeon. “I can handle dead people. You kill a dog, I go crazy.” Indeed, even the Fox executives understand a general disconnect of visualizing human corpses on American television these days. But signifying the empathetic responses summoned by mistreated animals offers the show’s biggest wink to its network audience. (“Hey, we’re FOX, remember? We used to be the “edgy” network!”)
Hardy recalls to the junior detective his experiences stalking Carroll in anticipation for a slipup. He describes Carroll with chilling admiration for his skill: I used to sit there and watch him teach. He was –phew—amazing. He could inspire people. It was a gift.” (And thus clearly a curse in the wrong hands.)
The Following also denotes special attention to a would-be victim of Carroll, Sarah Fuller. In addition to scenes where she, shirtless, runs her hands over numerous stabbing scars, this Final Girl forces the audience to “relive her trauma” through intense flashbacks. These scenes add emotional depth (sort of) to the Final Girl trope the way creator-writer Williamson “evolved” Sidney in his Scream movie series. Yet, arguably watching these flashbacks merely forces the audience into additional scenes of discomfort, thus creating an illusion of character development by way of traumatic voyeurism.
Clare, another academic, offers the source of Hardy’s background insight into the connection between Carroll and poetry. Their interaction indicates a romantic connection but also perhaps Clare’s role in Carroll’s life. When Hardy shares case information about the serial (dog) killer prison guard, Clare responds, “Joe’s always teaching. It was engrained in him so that makes sense. It makes sense he would find a student.” Her comments indicate the scenario of at minimum two serial killers but more importantly, return the secondary theme of education. Sociopathic pedagogical mentorship almost functions like a horror story in its own right for [conservative] network TV viewers that send their children off to college.
When Hardy returns to Sarah’s [guarded] home, she is gone. He follows the blood-smeared carpet through her closet and into the adjoining midtown house on the property. The blood trail ends in the garage where an armed guard corpse bleeds out on the floor (see pic below). When the police run background checks. They find Sarah’s “neighbors”, shown as a cozy young male couple and friends in earlier scenes, work as a “third grade teacher” and a “banker”. Hardy denounces whatever mundane masks they wear and proclaims that the neighbors, prison guard, and naked self-mutilator as part of a cult or following devoted to Carroll.
The Following‘s “Pilot” evokes numerous other horror tropes. Once the cult apparatus is revealed, Hardy makes the connections and traces fragments of a Lighthouse bed and breakfast to its source. Tragically, and without backup or a gun, Ryan finds Joe and Sarah. Yet Sarah’s screams represent newfangled technology, ghosts of the past. Joe lowers Sarah’s body from the ceiling, eyes gouged and body bled out. Ryan tries to attack but the authorities arrive before he loses control.
In a police interrogation room, Hardy speaks only to Ryan. He calls Ryan his new “flawed hero” and tells them they will write a new book together. The scene combines elements of Saw and Silence of the Lambs as the imprisoned serial killer sends the tragic hero out on a series [or serials] of tests, partially as punishment for Ryan “sleeping with” Joe’s wife, Claire. Simultaneously, Claire’s nanny kidnaps her and Joe’s son, abandons the car, and meets up with the purported gay lovers. Thus with a cult-like devotion espousing Rosemary’s Baby, the subplot of ritualized kidnapping now plays a role in Fox’s answer to its cable counterpart American Horror Story. Yet by staying within the reigns of serial killer psychological horror, The Following nests comfortably in the network lineup. Typical of a pilot, the episode works as a self-contained tragedy that springboards the (supposedly) limited series. As far as pilots go, The Following is well cast, with strong direction, pacing, and establishes enough mood to update a kind of Poe-esque worldview. Whether or not the show “teaches” a valuable lesson is left to be seen.